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The Nostalgic Attic: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

16 July 2014

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

"You coonshits, you fudge packers, you'll be the death of me yet!"

It's late at night on a quiet stretch of Texas highway. Two drunk jocks, Buzz and Rick, are cruising on their way to Dallas, and decide to ring rock DJ 'Stretch' (Caroline Williams; The Legend of Billie Jean, Stepfather II) on her late-night show to give her shit. Unable to get them off the phone, she's forced to keep the line open, becoming more and more frustrated with their drunken nonsense. Suddenly, things take a turn for the scary - a truck starts tailing the two buffoons, nearly running them off the road. Suddenly, a hooded figure leaps up from the back of the truck wielding a chainsaw, and begins to carve their car open. Rick takes a few shots at the mad man with his revolver, but it's too late - Buzz has literally had his head sliced in half, spurting blood all over the car... all while the horrified Stretch listens on.

The car wreck is found the next morning by the police, but not long after, an ex Texas Ranger by the name of Lefty (Dennis Hopper; Blue Velvet, River's Edge, Hoosiers) shows up to the scene and immediately connects it to a string of unsolved 'chainsaw' murders that have been plaguing the state for over two decades. It seems that 13 years ago, Lefty's niece and nephew, Sally and Franklin Hardesty, were victims of the same killers, and he has spent the time since trying to get his hands on them. After running an article in the local paper about the crimes, Stretch comes to Lefty with the recordings of the phone call containing the murders. He convinces her to play the tape on the radio, to see if they can lure out the killers. It doesn't take long for them to show up - killing Stretch's co-worker L.G. (Lou Perryman; Poltergeist, The Blues Brothers) - with Stretch barely making it out alive. When the killers, Leatherface (Bill Johnson; Future Kill, Talk Radio) and Chop Top (Bill Moseley; The Blob, Night of the Living Dead) leave the radio station, Stretch decides to follow them. They stop at an abandoned carnival ground and descend into their underground lair, bringing the body of L.G. with them. Lefty shows up just in time to see Stretch falling into a hole that leads to the lair, and heads in himself with a gleaming set of chainsaws to settle some old scores...

It was never going to be easy making a follow-up to one of the most deranged horror films ever made. The original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is such a blur of horrifying sound design, set design and near art-house madness that attempting to replicate it was always going to be a disaster. It was a film forged out of the tools of the time - a low budget, a gruelling shooting schedule, extreme heat, and a group of film makers with no idea that they were making what was to become one of the most legendary horror experiences ever committed to film. It was director Tobe Hooper's second film, and one that hung heavy over the rest of his career, with that same success always seemingly out of reach. So how do you go about following it up, 12 years later?

Hooper has always claimed that the original was never supposed to be as serious as it is - allegedly the comedy got lost along the way - so he decided to up the satirical nature of the follow-up considerably. For a good chunk of the film, it works effectively enough. The original cannibals are back - The Cook (Jim Siedow) included - and they drive around the state entering their chili and barbecue into competitions, usually winning too. No prizes for guess where the meat comes from. We also get a new face in the shape of Chop Top - sporting a metal plate in his skull and a Sonny Bono wig - who provides plenty of odd humour with his uncanny impression of the hitch hiker from the original film. Perhaps the most bizarre element of all comes in the shape of Dennis Hopper and his performance - he spends much of the film toting multiple chainsaws (usually one in each hand) but doesn't have a whole lot to do in the second half of the film, which is mainly set in the lair. 

This becomes a bit of a problem, as the film sort of runs out of steam when we get to this point. As I said, Hopper has little to do apart from roar hysterically while he saws down supporting pillars to the lair, and disappears for big chunks of the running time. The humour seems to dry up also, with the film becoming a noisy re-hash of the original, including the near mummified grandpa in a chair and a hammer in his hand. A few moments are livened up with the odd development of Leatherface finding Stretch attractive, with censor-baiting shots of him running his chainsaw over her crotch. The fact that he equates his murder weapon with his penis is a pretty funny riff on the male killer/misogynistic accusations towards slashers in the 80's, but sadly it isn't developed any further, and instead we finish up with a replica of the closing shot of the original film, that just doesn't gel that well with me.

Now, it might sound like I don't actually like the film; but I do. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is an easy film to hate - especially for the reasons described above - but I think it deserves a bit more of respect than it usually gets. The film has some really ghoulish imagery for a start. The opening murder on the highway is fantastic, with the image of Leatherface essentially wearing a dead body on top of him as he swings the chainsaw being one of those rare moments that few horror filmmakers ever conceive. This carries on into the scenes where L.G., after being graphically beaten, partly skinned and having his face removed, gets up to help Stretch escape. She is then forced to wear his face to stop Leatherface from killing her. It's gruesome stuff, and pretty messed up if you step back and think about it. What makes these moments effective is the near cartoonish quality to how the film is shot. If your only experience of TCM is the original, then be in for a surprise - this is a big budget glossy horror - but strangely enough, the type that could only have been made in the decade it came out. The whole film, with its mish-mash of humour and extreme violence, is something that most studios would never go near, but then again it's not a surprise to see the Cannon Films logo at the start either. 

The scenes with Chop Top in the radio station have a sweaty creepiness to them too, despite the overt comedy of it all. We even get one of the finest 'jump scares' in horror history here: when Leatherface makes his appearance from inside the darkness of the vinyl vault. It really is startling, with absolutely perfect timing, and with a tension filled build up that lasts several minutes. The performances all round are vivid, with Moseley and Williams really shining in their roles. It's just a pity then that the second half of the film couldn't rightly deliver on what was set up in the first half. How they managed to use Dennis Hopper so ineffectively is beyond me, and that's probably its biggest flaw. The climax still delivers some fun moments - the chainsaw duel, as well as Tom Savini's excellent 'grandpa' make up are a treat - but that final shot, instead of giving us a morbid flip of an iconic image we are very familiar with - just serves to remind us how great the original film was. The film was the last in a series of big budget films that Hooper made, including Poltergeist and Lifeforce.

If you've yet to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, then try and approach it with an open mind. Due to it being banned in Ireland and the UK until 1999, by the time I first saw it I found it a convoluted, lame-humoured, noisy mess. It took me a few years to finally come around to it, and now I appreciate it for the rare bird that it is - a gloriously excessive blow out of horror madness that wouldn't be seen again until Rob Zombie's 2003 love-letter to this exact film, House of 1000 Corpses. If you can get past the flaws in the second half of the film, and accept it on its own terms, then you might find yourself loving it too.

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At 16 July 2014 at 12:13 , Blogger Alvin Brickrock said...

Excellent Post. I saw this first during its original theatrical run and come away highly disappointed. But each time I've revisited it over the years I've become more and more fond of it. It's got some great set design and as you said there's some really gruesome stuff here.


At 16 July 2014 at 12:17 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Dick - I can well imagine that disappointment on leaving the cinema. There's definitely plenty of nastiness, and the effects are great. A pity it has taken so long to find an audience, though.

At 17 July 2014 at 04:13 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I saw this in the theater too - but I had a different reaction - I found the film devastating - in a good way. I was wowed by the horror and somehow didn't even notice how absurd the humor was. I just kind of thought of the comedic bits as a sign of the horrific insanity on view. Subsequent viewings have shown me how funny the movie is and the horror has taken more of a backseat. Either way I really enjoy the movie. I think the thought that Hooper and Carson had that they couldn't surpass the horror and that's why they expanded into the absurdity and humor.

At 17 July 2014 at 05:06 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

That's interesting, Craig. For us poor sods over here, we had to wait 13 years to see this one, so you can imagine the hype that goes with a film being banned that long. When I first watched it, I was probably a bit jaded/burnt out from horror, and it just barely got a reaction out of me. I find that now, as I'm a bit older, I sit down with some of these films and it can feel almost like the a first time viewing - this time, the violence and horror was really at the forefront, it's quite sadistic in parts, which is unusual for films from that era - and I feel that I can finally appreciate the film for what it is, rather than what it was 'supposed' to be. I read that initially it was going to be much more of a satire, along the lines of Motel Hell, which might have been interesting. Either way, the film works just fine now, and I'm happy to enjoy it, even if I'm a late comer to it.

At 18 July 2014 at 10:38 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, a fantastic review which has me reaching for the Arrow Blu for a Saturday afternoon screening, the Blu (my third copy of this film!) still unwatched,, bought primarily for the extraordinary Eggshells, but your post has really whetted my appetite for the film. I had this on a fuzzy, faded VHS boot and what a revelation the first edition DVD was. I must say I've always loved this film despite it being so tonally different from the original, but the film is so wild and unhinged, I find it hard not to be swept up by the mad carnival atmosphere of it all (great call on House of 1000 Corpses, another film I like very much). By all accounts the film was made under dire circumstances - the film went before the cameras on the 5th of May and unbelievably was in theaters on the 22nd August, the brutally short production schedule forced Kit Carson to rewrite his screenplay daily on the set. In less caring hands the film is all too often cited as the low point of Dennis Hopper's career (has no one seen Waterworld ?) and while Hopper does looks genuinely dazed throughout, he bags at least one great line in the film when he begins his assault on the Sawyer clan: "Lord, help me beat this stranger that walks beside me and takes away my strength" - a great line for anyone going into battle...

At 19 July 2014 at 06:19 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes, I really appreciate the insight into the shooting on this one - I wasn't aware of the production troubles beyond script re-writes. This is the kind of info that'll have me picking up the Arrow Blu Ray at some point, I'd love to hear a commentary, or at least an in depth interview on the film. Knowing about that bonkers production schedule certainly does alter how I feel about some of it, and I'm sure the problems I have as mentioned above could have been ironed out with a bit more time.

It's an odd one for Hopper ( I did read that he thoroughly hated the film when he saw it) as he was actually doing some interesting roles around this time. As you said though, when a script is being re-wrtten extensively on a daily basis (Script re-writes during a shoot are not uncommon at all, but majorly changing the film would be) he just had no choice but to go with the flow and shoot whatever was handed to him...

At 29 July 2014 at 12:46 , Blogger Drew Grimm Van Ess said...

Great write-up, dude. I remember I first saw this on VHS and I wasn't a big fan at first. It's one of those one's that I've come to appreciate as I've gotten older, but I was never really a big fan of the original series. People look at me like I'm crazy (laugh) and I understand why, but the Texas Chainsaw movies never did anything for me. I respect them (the first 2) and the work put into them, and what they've done for the horror genre. But you can respect a movie and not like it. I find it's the same case for me with the original Amityville Horror. But anyway, I need to rewatch this one again and hopefully soon. It's weird, I don't like them, yet I'm compelled to watch them.

At 30 July 2014 at 02:23 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Drew. I can well imagine most horror fans thinking you're nuts for not at least liking the original, you must be the first I've met! The sequels have earned a bit more respect for me over the years, and I now I quite enjoy parts two and three. I still pretend the 4th never happened, though.

Regards Amityville, I'm with you there. The first film is pretty all over the place, and not particularly scary at all. Still, re-watching them last October made me realise there is still a lot of fun to be had with them, even if it doesn't hold up to other horror films from the same era.


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